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Soft Hands by Stan Apps (UDP, 2005) a Review.
Brandon Shimoda

A small prop plane courses across a file folder sky, leaving a trail of words in its wake - Soft Hands by Stan Apps - and the plane descends… The first page of Stan Apps' Soft Hands is a full-page, high contrast reproduction of what looks to be the surface of the moon, with bootprints in a pattern of unfocused ambulation across it. Interjecting itself conspicuously across this surface, in the right hand corner, is a right hand, palm facing out, its fingers fully extended, as if reaching out to be shaken. Jump ahead to the last page, where you will find the same lunar surface. Here, however, the hand has been replaced by the flag of the United States, planted among the bootprints, casting its wan saber of a pole backwards across the vacant landscape. The hand, previously extending itself in greeting, has been supplanted by a flag, frozen in a moment of folding and unfolding in the presumed wind of outerspace. Perhaps intentionally, or perhaps due to the quality of the reproduction, where the stars would be on the flag, there is a swatch of deep black. There are no stars; contrast does not allow for constellations or for states. Immediately, without yet encountering the poems themselves, Soft Hands sets up an atmosphere in which contact (on either the micro- or macro-level) is transmuted, by force of manipulation and control, into domination. And that, by way of soft, "terribly soft," hands. This subtle disconcertment of stars (states, and subsequently bodies) away from their "rightful" encampment on the flag, finds its mouth in the recurringly contradictory, solipsistic tongue of the speaker throughout these poems, as if all fixed identities were cancelled. The first poem immediately sets out a project of inclemency: "The winds blow colder as the days grow old," followed by a warble of assertions: and I feel beautiful when I am obvious when my motives are a glow around me and around you too when I have convinced myself that I am being helpful but it is very rare, I don't know why, to be able to be happy doing what one is supposed to do - Doubt and belief are two sides of the same mind; beauty affiliated with transparency, as opposed to something more circumspect. Yet these conditions seem part of a conversational rhetoric meant to blow smoke in the face of the "you," which fast becomes subsumed in the amorphous body of "the people." In fact, there is the sense throughout these poems that the self and the body are the first tools towards enacting an imperialist agenda. The hands of the title - the tools of manipulation - are soft, suggesting the quality of not only being moderate and/or non-committal, but easily manipulated. Soft Hands could be taken as the dubious control of the self by way of the self. Can the self - or a nation - carry its imperialist project inward, deploying it upon itself? In devising the identity of the speaker in these poems, Apps takes the perspectival gaze, transmutes it into a "stare" (God loves the blank / stare of the victim"), and feeds on it, utilizing it towards the creation of the self, that the self could not only function, but would not exist without the sustaining stare. The stare has a more self- possessed aspect than the gaze, less interested in the object of focus, than in its own attitude towards that object. The stare is also fed upon to eliminate the need to see oneself: Summertime, and I shave off my beard, that heavy hiding-place, and leave my glasses folded on the counter, because I'd rather be seen than see. O admiration, I am tired. §

The eye is dismissed in favor of the "I," half of the lyrical mode shaved off, and allowed the apostrophe, which is self-reflexive and, ultimately, deflated ("I am tired.) The first poem, "Please / agree with me and make me large," is an imperative directed out into the world toward self-inflation. For to be "large" is to be, possibly, beyond reproach: "If someone goes to all the trouble of deceiving me / I guess they've earned the world." The voice in these lines is hesitant, suppositious: "mainly I feel like the meek oppressor / being polite in the face of a vast / inappropriateness." There is a lot going on in just this line: the contradictory, qualifying sense of "meek oppressor;" "being polite in the face," suggesting reluctant etiquette, as well as a level of façade behind which the "I" operates; the subjective indictment of a "vast / inappropriateness." In these lines, the "oppressor" takes him/herself outside of the implications of oppression, topped off with the slightly uncertain "mainly." Apps works seamlessly within the manipulation of language to provide a "soft"ness to otherwise deceptive, "hard" language. § Apps's use of Jean-Luc Godard's Masculin-Feminin accents the idea of individuals as fundamentally liminal, the "children of Marx and Coca-Cola," and in turn, preoccupied with surface reality, unable to fully engage in - or commit to, perhaps - either side of their suspension. In "J'Adore L'Idée De Vous," written "upon the occasion of watching" Godard's film, we witness the admiration for the "intensity" of "a starlet in an unmade bed, where no one / swims." We move from a nebulous "He" to "we" to "I adore, your idea" and forward to "those people" - the stock Other, effete and subject to the indecisions and theorizations of the "we" and the "I": … Before those people can be helped, the world must agree that the world ought to help them. Then it must agree what the world is, to understand how the world could do something, by counting the supply of heads that could play host to the world's thoughts. A preoccupation with speech versus action is apparent: "I look away from / what the people do. I am in love with what they say." As well, the schizophrenia of the "stare," as exercised in the language, holds relation to the designedly schizophrenic language employed by both the government and the mass media to slowly, and continually, shift priorities from the needful Other to the self. This condition of language enacts the reduction to a "simple play of intensities … the simultaneously brutal and sentimental pulsions of mass media," as outlined by Andrew Joron in "The Emergency," the introductory essay to his recent collection of poems, Fathom. A language like that in "Next. Next" - soothing and spanking interchangeably, doing these things for different reasons hybridized into the one Motive, to do right, to learn them to do right and fight for right. - underscores the righteous interchangeability of help and harm - mingled towards the ultimate goal of a nebulous "right." The repetition of "right" slowly dissolves into simplistic code ("learn them to do right"). The idea of Motive (here capitalized; in "Mystery Poem:" "All our motives have been;" in the opening poem: "my motives are a glow / around me and around you too") justifies, "random failings we do in the present tense," action under the aegis of the Right, the "Massive Mother: a solemn mother; she was reluctant to be influential, she didn't want their manners on her hands. The refusal to be held in complicity with one's own actions draws out the paradox between the want for self-inflation, and the denial of its consequences. This, effectively, always leads both towards and away from "the people" degraded within such a system, back to the inflated "I": sorry, world, I stopped looking at you for a while: for a while, all I could see was the result of my own need to make the most sense I could possibly. These two stanzas are from "Poem with One Paranoid Sentence," a poem that confirms the concept of paranoia within these pages - an alternation between self-importance and a feeling of persecution, fitted into an organized rationale: So, he can sin because he poses as one who is inspired by belief to believe it is not sin. What is real here? He "poses" as one "inspired," though not necessarily "inspired" himself, therefore not actually "believing." He believes nothing; he is belief's employee. He pursues the goals that a believer would pursue, but in his case it is a job only. This entangled language, and the persona that it develops, mirrors that of George W. Bush, presiding over his own "paranoid sentence." Of course, the idea of "soft hands" also brings me directly to Bush… in the stories - told by many - of finally getting to shake the hand of this country rancher turned "Earth's bureaucrat," only to find that he has, in fact, soft hands, the hands of someone who has not worked a single day in his life. § The poems in this collection are composed, for the most part, of incredibly long lines, folded (by the winds of outerspace and/or the limitations of the page) into elongated lineation. The breath (and breadth) of Apps' concerns is felt - (We were talking and I saw her wipe her face. Woops! Too close. The more eloquent I get the more words seem to carry wet.) - as if Apps continually overextends himself beneath the weight of things to impart. The importance of breath and, more specifically, the mouth in acting as an instrument of address against corruption and manipulation ultimately places Apps' Soft Hands in the mode of Joron's "self-organized criticality of the cry." Georges Bataille, as well, names the mouth as "the orifice of profound physical impulses," as well as one of two ways to liberate those same impulses (the other being the brain.) "Real beauty squints / in the mouth…Real beauty chuckles in the mouth," Apps states in "You Are Real," a poem which begins with the line: They say the U.S. has a trade deficit because we don't export enough, but they forget
that we export BRUTE FORCE, a cologne for pregnant women; (which is later disturbingly emended with "Man, an immense ultimatum, ready for export") and then goes on: The big problem around here is this shit happening around here is so wholesome you
can't see the awful stuff happening over there. The cologne reappears - not literally, but subliminally - in the last poem ("Summertime, and I shave off / my beard), in which the speaker exposes himself and, as mentioned, relieves the eye in favor of the "I." How can the individual, entangled as it is within the complex of - in Apps' own words - "internal moral conflict and confusion," predicated on an engagement with an increasingly proximal surface, and the increasingly ruinous perversion of language… how can the individual speak out from within that confusion? … it just so happens we are human beings and we become involved, so what? You can't blame me for being claimed, can you? Soft Hands does the work of attempting to express that confusion, as well as itself, in its utterance. We see the words writ large upon the sky, and as the disembodied hand comes towards us, disguised in the persona of goodwill, we are made aware, by this work, of what that grip might contain.

Copyrights © 2006, GC & Authors.